Seeds of high-mountain species are thought to germinate rapidly, synchronously and at high percentages after a cold period, with limited dependence on the external environment; yet, empirical evidence only partially supports this behaviour. We performed a comparative study of the germination response of two closely related taxa along an altitude gradient in northern Spain. Seeds from several maternal families of six populations of Saxifraga trifurcata (lowland species) and S. canaliculata (highland species) were subjected to temperature and stratification treatments. Germination percentages and germination rates were analysed using generalised linear mixed modelling and accelerated failure-time modelling. We found that germination percentages and germination rates were high and dependent on incubation temperature in both species. Within species, seeds from higher altitudes had higher germination percentages under all conditions. Cold–wet stratification negatively affected germination success, particularly in the lowland species. Overall, the highland species was less responsive to the experimental treatments and showed more synchronous germination patterns. We conclude that seeds from these two Saxifraga species germinate as efficiently as species from other habitats, but have a narrower germination response, probably due to the stronger selective pressures in their harsh environments. Finally, a cold, wet stratification period is not a prerequisite for the germination of high-mountain S. canaliculata, and its strong negative effect on the germination of its lowland relative S. trifurcata may contribute to the altitudinal segregation of these two species.